Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollack are the Casserole Queens of Austin, Texas. They began as a meal delivery business; the food their clients wanted, delivered in aprons and heels. They have expanded their business to include many other food related activities; it’s not clear from their website if they still cook meals for people. Now they blog, they speak, they offer a “recipe creation service,” and they write cookbooks, their two books (to date) being the subject of this post. The food of Casserole Queens is everyday food, with a strong retro tilt. The Casserole Queens are comfortable slumming, with Spam, cake mixes, Bisquick, Velveeta, and Ritz crackers. It is possible, though, to find relatively healthy (even vegetarian) recipes with good ingredients.
The focus in The Casserole Queens Cookbook is casseroles, although there is a penultimate chapter on desserts and an ultimate chapter on basics (“From Scratch: Yes You Can”). All the old casserole favorites are here: tuna noodle casserole, lasagna, and sweet potato casserole (which has plenty of sugar, but no miniature marshmallows). There are a lot of meat recipes, but the vegetarian recipes are conveniently labelled. There are some scary recipes: “Cook Family Pineapple Casserole” (page 141) uses two cans of pineapple, 8 ounces of cheddar cheese, a cup of sugar, a stick and a half of butter, and a roll of Ritz crackers. And then there’s “Spam Casserole” (page 52) with potatoes, spam, and cream of celery soup. Actually, I expect this particular casserole is pretty good, at least for those who eat Spam. However, I found some tasty vegetarian recipes that did not compromise our health (at least not that much).
One reason that the Casserole Queens have a recipe for “Cream of Mushroom Soup” (page 203) is so that their readers can use this soup instead of canned cream of mushroom soup. Sacrilege! The too salty canned taste of canned cream of mushroom soup is an essential component of many casseroles. I would never dream of using “real” cream of mushroom soup in a casserole. I am, however, quite prepared to make cream of mushroom soup and enjoy it as a soup. This is a very simple mushroom soup, yet very satisfying. It is composed of mushrooms and leeks cooked in butter, then broth; the broth is thickened with flour, and cream is added. At the end, you whip out the immersion blender to get a smooth soup. One nice thing about this soup was that it did not separate in the refrigerator; this, I assume, is due to the flour thickener.
“Tuscan Ziti Bake” (page 110) is unusual in that it has no tomatoes (or mushroom soup). The main ingredients, along with the ziti, are sausage (I used a vegetarian sausage), zucchini, onions, and feta and mozzarella cheeses. The dominant taste in my casserole was the vegetarian sausage I used, and I am not sure that I particularly liked the type that I used. Otherwise, this casserole was fine, and useful for times when one wants a non-tomato pasta casserole.
“Jayne’s Baked Spaghetti” (page 62) has been a favorite of mine ever since I acquired this cookbook, and I think that my version of this casserole is an improvement over Jayne’s. (Jayne, by the way, is Sandy’s mother-in-law.) I use about half the amount of pasta as in the original recipe and use real, not canned, mushrooms, and loose, not canned, olives, as well as using a lot more of these two ingredients. To make this casserole, cooked angel hair pasta is layered with a tomato sauce and cheddar (retro!) cheese; it’s all topped with condensed cream of mushroom (super retro!) soup diluted with milk, and Parmesan cheese. Topping this casserole is the perfect use for condensed cream of mushroom soup! [Go to the recipe.]
Crystal and Sandy have their own take on migas in their recipe, “Texas Migas” (page 148). They mix eggs with vegetables, then top with fried tortilla strips and cheese and bake in the oven. I think that I might have preferred the eggs and tortilla strips more integrated, but baking this in the oven as a casserole fit my purposes: I wanted a make-ahead dish, not an impromptu meal. On the other hand, migas might be best as an impromptu meal, as I liked the leftovers less every time I had some. But the first serving was pretty good.
“Green Rice Hot Dish” (page 125) was really good, and I am not sure why. I made this, assuming that it would be strictly a side dish, but I ended up liking it on its own. Little squares of this casserole, heated in the microwave, made a particularly good breakfast. Think of the type of macaroni and cheese that is cooked with eggs instead of white sauce, substitute rice for the macaroni, and you will have this dish. The “green” in the title comes from parsley, but since parsley is essentially tasteless, it added very little except the color. Crystal and Sandy want us to use a can of evaporated milk, but it turned out that I had bought sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk. I substituted a combination of milk and sour cream for the evaporated milk with good results.
In their second book, The Casserole Queens Make-a-Meal Cookbook, the Queens seem to expand their reach, both in the types of recipes (not just casseroles) and in the sources for their recipes. Casseroles still dominate, but now there is a salad chapter in addition to the desserts and basics chapters. There is an obvious Texas influence in the recipes (chili, bacon, enchiladas, etc.), but in this book, the Queens look beyond their own backyard with, for example, bobotie, shakshuka, and moussaka. Still, the differences between the two books are slight, about as significant as Crystal’s change from a halter top on the first book cover to a Peter Pan collar on the cover of the second.
“Crystal’s May-I-Have-More-Mayo Potato Salad” (page 130) is a very undistinguished potato salad. The dressing is half mayonnaise and half Greek yogurt; the add-in ingredients are scallions, celery, and lots of herbs. This salad needed something more, and not more mayonnaise; rather, something to give more flavor. Horseradish might help. I added some sriracha to a serving, which was an improvement, although not that compatible.
Your classic Caprese salad consists of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil drizzled with olive oil. This is a little too civilized for me, but I like Crystal and Sandy’s take on this salad, “Pint-Sized Caprese Salad” (page 126). They combine little mozzarella balls with halved cherry tomatoes in a cheeseless pesto sauce. Here are all the same flavors, and yet you can eat this salad without thinking. [Go to the recipe.]
Farro is great grain. It is tasty, has a good texture, does not take forever to cook, and is high in protein (for a grain). It can be used in salads, and also as a casserole base, as in “Farro, Wild Mushroom, and Walnut Casserole” (page 94). All the main ingredients except for dried cranberries are named in the title. Danny was not too impressed with this dish when he was trying to eat it by itself as a main dish. I liked it a lot more because I was eating it with the spicy spinach (below). When Danny tried it my way, he liked it more also.
I used to like the spinach served at my elementary school cafeteria until I learned that children were not supposed to like spinach; even after I learned this, I still secretly liked it. It was not the taste of spinach that was so appealing, but its pillowy softness. “Spinach and Spice and Everything Nice” (page 140) delivers not only on texture, but, with the help of pickled jalapeños delivers on taste too. This is a simple dish: spinach (and here I used a package of pre-washed baby spinach) is cooked in olive oil with garlic and pickled jalapeños, and flavored with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and jalapeño juice. The only thing wrong with this dish is the unavoidable color: I think it is the vinegar from the jalapeños that turns the spinach to a dull and ugly green.
Adapted from Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollack, The Casserole Queens Cookbook
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, peeled and chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
1 28-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
½ cup black olives, pitted and chopped
2 teaspoons oregano (dried)
1 8.8-ounce package angel hair pasta
8 ounces cheddar cheese
1 10¾-ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
½ soup can milk
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion, celery, and mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are limp. Add the tomatoes, olives, and oregano, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Bring a large pot of slated water to a boil; add the pasta and cook until done (which will not take very long).
To assemble the casserole, make a layer of pasta, then sauce, then cheddar cheese; repeat. Mix the mushroom soup with the milk and spread over the top of the casserole. Sprinkle the Parmesan on top. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the casserole is bubbly along the edges.
Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
Adapted from Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollack, The Casserole Queens Make-a-Meal Cookbook
Juice from ½ lemon
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup fresh basil
1 clove garlic
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1½ cups small mozzarella balls
Blend the lemon juice, vinegar, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper together until smooth. Combine with the tomatoes and cheese.